VATICAN CITY – The Vatican confirmed on Sunday that Pope Francis would visit Israel this year, which would make him only the fourth pontiff to visit the Holy Land in the modern era.
The visit comes during a period of dramatic outreach for the Roman Catholic Church under Francis – not only to other faiths but also to groups often marginalized by the church in the past – and fairly early in Francis’s papacy. Francis will have been pope for just over 14 months when he travels to Israel, Jordan and the West Bank on May 24-25. Only Paul VI, who became the first modern pope to visit Jerusalem six months into his papacy in 1964, made such a trip so early in his reign. But Paul’s trip came before the Vatican even recognized Israel as a sovereign state.
Pope John Paul II visited Israel in 2000 and Pope Benedict XVI made the trip in 2009.
“It’s less newsworthy now that the pope will travel to Israel and Palestine than it was a generation ago, but it is also significant to note it comes very early in his papacy, which I think shows it is a high priority,” said the Rev. Alistair Sear, a retired church historian. “John Paul traveled more than any pope in history and he did a great deal to bring Jews and Catholics closer, but he didn’t go to Israel until the 22nd year of his papacy.”
The trip will likely be Francis’s second foreign trip as pope, following a visit to Brazil for World Youth Day last July.
The pope “is very welcome in Israel and he will be greeted as warmly as his predecessors were,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Sunday.
Francis announced the plans during his Angelus blessing in St. Peter’s Square Sunday morning.
But the trip has been rumored since early October, when Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said a visit to the Holy Land was a “possibility” for 2014 and Rabbi Abraham Skorka in Buenos Aires, a long-time friend of Francis, said the pope had a “life-long dream” to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Even as a priest, bishop, or cardinal, Mario Jose Bergoglio – who became Pope Francis last March – never visited Israel.
Francis told the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square in rainy weather that he announced the trip to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Amman “in the climate of joy that is typical of the Christmas season.”
Until that moment, the Vatican steadfastly refused to confirm speculation about a papal trip to Israel, even after President Shimon Peres formally invited him to make the journey last April and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeated the invitation five weeks ago.
The trip will come four months after the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s half day visit to Jerusalem, which included a historic summit with Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. The Vatican said Sunday that the current Orthodox patriarch, Bartholomew, will join Francis to celebrate Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Francis is also expected to renew the Vatican’s long-standing call for peace between Israel and Palestine, according to Vatican news sources, though the Vatican also tried to play down the geopolitical aspects of the trip, saying in a statement the trip was aimed at “spreading and promoting love, cooperation, and peace.”
With the official confirmation of the trip, attention will now turn toward figuring out the details of the visit including security issues. Vatican officials have said security has become an increased area of concern since Francis took office, since he is prone to break from his planned agendas and he thrives in large crowds.
In less than 10 months as pope, Francis has become one of the most recognizable figures on the planet, earning accolades including being named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”
He is credited with helping to reform the church’s somewhat tarnished image, sparking a surge in church attendance worldwide and even a new wave of tourism to Rome and the Vatican city state. He has also started a period of outreach in the church, taking steps to improve relations with other faiths as well as to often marginalized groups within the church, including women, homosexuals and divorced Catholics.
During his visit to Rome last year, Peres praised the gradual thawing of once icy relations between Israel and the Vatican, declaring that relations between the two states were “now at their best in the last 2,000 years.”